From the curb, the house at 1601 Moore Ave. looks like a legitimate fixer-upper. An older house with a still-shiny metal roof and a wooden wheelchair ramp, it shows few signs of major problems.
But when the Anniston Housing Authority scooped up the house for $12,500 last year, the agency got a lesson in just how tricky it can be to rescue the city’s older properties. When the estimated cost of new plumbing, windows, heating and air reached $100,000, City Council members began to balk at the authority’s plan to renovate the house and rent it to low-income tenants.
“We ran into costs we didn’t expect,” said Willie “Sonny” McMahand, director of the housing authority. He said both options, rehabilitation and rebuilding from the ground up, are still on the table.
The quandary on Moore Avenue may shed some light on a riddle that has often puzzled Anniston residents. Homeless people fill local emergency shelters when the weather turns deadly cold. Local officials say there are likely dozens of homeless individuals in downtown Anniston at any given time, and with the closing earlier this year of the Salvation Army men’s shelter, there are fewer places than ever for them to stay.
Local organizations such as The Right Place work to get low-income people into affordable housing.
And yet the city is dotted with empty houses. A 2011 study by the city found that 2,500 of Anniston’s 12,000 houses are vacant. Those houses, by and large, aren’t expensive: County records show many vacant residences in the streets just west of downtown valued at about $30,000.
How can those two things — a glut of empty, cheap houses and a crowd of people unable to afford rent — exist in the same place?
“It’s extremely difficult to get a mortgage for an inexpensive house. It’s ironic and counterintuitive,” said Julia Gordon, director of the National Community Stabilization Trust, a nonprofit that works to rehabilitate houses in blighted communities across the country.
Theoretically, Gordon said, the marketplace should match low-income buyers with low-cost houses. In reality, she said, mortgages below $50,000 have long been hard to get. Lenders have built-in costs for every loan they make, and issuing small loans simply isn’t cost-effective.
“The smaller mortgages get left behind because it takes as long to do them as the big ones,” she said.
The Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group in Washington D.C., have found the same issues with the finance system.
Alanna McCargo, vice president at the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy division, said it costs lenders the same to make a $700,000 loan as it does to make a $70,000 loan. The way the system is structured means bigger loans make more economic sense.
This isn’t anything new, though. According to McCargo, there was never a time when getting a small mortgage was particularly easy for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.
“The housing finance system historically hasn’t served the lower-dollar end of the market well,” said McCargo.
That leaves the market largely to investors, who might buy a house outright to turn into a rental property. Even then, real estate experts say, the economics can be grim. The cost of fixing up a house to meet local codes can be hefty.
“It’s harder to get properties in Anniston to work as investments due to repair costs versus income potential,” said Keith Kelley, a real estate agent at Harris-McKay Realty.
McCargo also mentioned the issue of lower cost homes needing significant investment. She pointed to cities like Detroit as examples of large cities still struggling with a depressed housing market.
Many empty properties in Anniston are in need of repair. Some require minor changes, like windows and stairs, but some also lack central heating and modern electrical amperage. If given the option of purchasing a property for $40,000 and paying $15,000 in repairs, or buying a fully-furnished home for $55,000, the latter means less hassle for everyone involved.
Scott Nelson, a mortgage loan officer at Noble Bank & Trust in Anniston, said it’s not impossible to get a loan to buy a lower-cost house in Anniston. However, the mortgage side of the bank will only lend out a minimum of $50,000, so if borrowers want to take out less they may need to apply for a different type of loan with a potentially higher interest rate.
Despite this, Nelson said he has seen an increase in homes sales overall over the past three years.
“I think it’s the economy; there’s more money and more jobs,” he said.
It’s still not clear that this growth in homebuying has trickled down to Anniston’s most struggling neighborhoods. The Anniston Housing Authority, operators of public housing projects in the city since the end of the Great Depression, has been trying to make a dent in the unused-housing problem, but going is slow.
The housing authority last year began tearing down two-story, apartment-style housing complexes with a plan to replace them with more modern facilities — while also spreading some of their clients out to single-family homes now unused on the west side. By and large, the authority doesn’t have to worry about financing for those single-family purchases. McMahand said they’re paid for by federal grants.
So far, according to McMahand, the authority has renovated three homes. The Moore Avenue house was supposed to be the fourth. But the problem of bringing an old house up to modern standards can quickly run up the cost of an inexpensive house.
Gordon, the nonprofit director, said cities across the country are running into similar problems in their attempts to rehabilitate old neighborhoods. Cost makes the choice between fixing up and tearing down a tough one.
“Sometimes, if you do demolition strategically, it can help more than renovation,” she said. Opening a lot can make space available for developers if they’re interested, she said; done haphazardly, it leaves a “gap-toothed” look in a neighborhood.
Amanda Pinson, executive director of the Calhoun County Habitat for Humanity, pointed out another problem with using vacant properties: the inability to track down whoever owns the title to the house.
“Getting the proper title is probably the biggest issue, especially for organizations that want to come in and revitalize,” Pinson said.
When a house becomes empty due to a death, the property may go to descendants. It’s not always easy to contact the new heirs. And even if people move out but don’t sell the house, it can be difficult to get in touch.
Pinson said the organization is working to add onto a house it built years ago, so the resident can have room for her five grandchildren, as well as renovating a disabled veteran’s home.
Pinson said Habitat has not been building many new homes in Anniston primarily because they are not getting many requests for people who want to live in town.
“We certainly want to have a presence in Anniston,” she said.
For those who do want to stay in Anniston, rehabilitating existing houses can make all the difference.
Carl Bolton was living on a patio on Cane Creek Drive before he saw an ad for The Right Place. The organization was able to find him a place to live near its center on West 15th Street, and Bolton says he likes it there.
“I enjoy it,” said Bolton. “It’s a nice neighborhood and they keep it real neat and clean.”